Whether it’s the Jersey Shore cast slamming drinks at a club or Will Ferrell and his band of over-aged frat buddies chugging beer bongs in the movie Old School, binge drinking is a celebrated pop cultural past time portrayed as innocent and inconsequential. Unfortunately, binge drinking is a dangerous and costly public health problem that more than 38 million U.S. adults participate in each month. Read on to find out what exactly binge drinking is, the types of groups most affected and the health and safety risks it can have on a person.
What is Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking occurs when a person follows a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 gram percent or above. For the typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming five or more drinks (male), or four or more drinks (female), in about two hours.
Types of Binge Drinking / Binge Drinking Groups
Binge Drinking is not limited to one type of person or age group. However, certain groups of people in different social strata are more prone to binge drinking, as identified below.
- Age group with most binge drinkers: 18-34 years
- Age group that binge drinks most often: 65+ years
- Income group with most binge drinkers: more than $75,000
- Income group that binge drinks the most often and drinks most per binge: less than $25,000
Signs of Binge Drinking
More than half of the alcohol consumed by adults (90% of people under 21) in the United States is in the form of binge drinks, which makes it difficult to specify the signs of binge drinking. However, characteristics of certain groups of people increase the likelihood that signs of binge drinking will be exhibited. These include the following:[3,4]
- One in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about eight drinks per binge.
- The prevalence of binge drinking among men is twice the prevalence among women.
- Approximately 92% of U.S. adults who drink excessively report binge drinking in the past 30 days.
- Although college students commonly binge drink, 70% of binge drinking episodes involve adults age 26 years and older.
- Binge drinkers are 14 times more likely to report alcohol-impaired driving than non-binge drinkers.
Causes of Binge Drinking
The propensity to binge drink may arise from a combination of cognitive, biological, and social factors, which could contribute to the underlying cause of binge drinking. Inebriation is another important factor related to binge drinking and it is often reported as the basis for binging; that is, a desire to experience enhanced mood and conviviality are motivations for binge drinking.
Further, drinking in a group leads to the experience of greater euphoria than drinking the same quantity alone, and drinking in a social setting facilitates more consumption than solitary drinking. Younger people, such as college students, often seek out environments that facilitate binge drinking and collegiate living arrangements—especially fraternities and sororities—are a significant correlate of binge drinking. Other factors include living with a roommate, stressing the importance of parties and having five or more close student friends.
Effects of Binge Drinking
Binge drinking can result in health and safety risks that include physical injuries sustained from a car wreck or from falling down. Binge drinking can also lead to intentional injuries, such as those sustained from firearms, sexual assault and domestic violence. Further, drinking a lot on a single occasion slows the body’s ability to ward off infections, even up to 24 hours after binge drinking. Over the long term, binge drinking can damage the liver and other organs. The list below identifies how binge drinking can affect certain organs in the body.[6,7,4]
Heart: Drinking too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems such as cardiomyopathy (stretching and drooping of the heart muscle), arrhythmias (irregular heart beat), stroke and high blood pressure.
Pancreas: Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.
Brain: Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.
Liver: Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including steatosis (fatty liver), alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis.
Treatments and Methods to Prevent Binge Drinking
It is important to note that binge drinking is not alcoholism but can lead to the disease. A binge drinker who does not have alcoholism has the option of trying to drink in moderation. Further, a therapist can assist this person with developing better self-control and identifying issues that undermine it. People who are still unable to drink in moderation after getting help are encouraged to stop alcohol use altogether.
Additionally, in an effort to prevent binge drinking and related harms, evidence-based interventions have been identified that include:
- Increasing alcoholic beverage costs and excise taxes.
- Limiting the number of retail alcohol outlets that sell alcoholic beverages in a given area.
- Holding alcohol retailers responsible for the harms caused by their underage or intoxicated patrons (dram shop liability).
- Restricting access to alcohol by maintaining limits on the days and hours of alcohol retail sales.
- Consistent enforcement of laws against underage drinking and alcohol-impaired driving.
- Maintaining government controls on alcohol sales (avoiding privatization).
- Screening and counseling for alcohol misuse.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Binge Drinking. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/BingeDrinking/.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. NIAA Newsletter, Winter 2004, Number 3. NIAAA Council Approves Definition of Binge Drinking. [PDF] Retrieved May 19, 2013, from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Newsletter/winter2004/Newsletter_Number3.pdf.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening and Behavioral Counseling Interventions in Primary Care to Reduce Alcohol Misuse. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/3rduspstf/alcohol/alcomisrs.htm.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm.
- National Center for Biotechnical Information. Binge Drinking in Young Adults: Data, Definitions, and Determinants. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2748736/.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Moderate & Binge Drinking. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body.
- Independent Alcoholism Help Council. Binge Drinking. Retrieved May 19, 2013, from http://www.alcoholic.org/research/binge-drinking/.
By C. J. Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor